Most horse owners understand why glucosamine or MSM would be included in their horse’s supplements, but what about milk thistle or slippery elm?
According to medical definition, a medicine is anything that enters the body and alters its structure or function. Using that definition, all herbs could be considered medicines. In fact, many herbs are both foods and medicines. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration classifies herbs as foods when no claims are made that the herb will cure, treat, mitigate, or prevent any disease. If a company makes health claims about an herb, then that herb would automatically have to be regulated.
Most herbs are therefore sold as foods but used as medicines.
Herbs act very different in the body than conventional medicines or drugs. Most drug classifications begin with the prefix "anti." We have antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and anti-toxins. The prefix "anti" means that these drugs act against a negative substance or process in the body.
Herbs, on the other hand, tend to increase good substances and support healthy processes in the body. In herbal therapy, the practitioner views disease as a general imbalance in the body. In the case of a kidney infection, instead of immediately reaching for antibiotics, an herbalist might give herbs that would prevent toxins from being absorbed from the bowel. These herbs would also tonify and build the kidney as well as increase the discharge of toxins through the urinary track and other eliminative organs.
Herbs are generally divided into three main categories:
Herbs in the nutrient category are not considered to act on any specific condition but they do support health through their nutritional makeup by providing vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fat. In addition to these basic nutrients, herbs also contain beneficial substances such as flavonoids. Examples of flavonoids are aromatic oils and also saponins, which are soapy substances that support intestinal health. Nutritional herbs can be used freely with no concern about toxicity.
Herbs in the medicinal/nutritional category are more targeted to address certain conditions or organ systems. They are still quite safe but would not generally be used on a continuous basis.
Herbs in the medicinal category have strong action and could be toxic if used inappropriately.
NUTRIENT HERB: ALFALFA
Horse owners consider alfalfa as a form of hay but it is also a bitter herb that acts on the digestive and circulatory system. It has the properties of being able to aid digestion, act as a general tonic, bring down a fever, purify the blood, and act as a diuretic. Alfalfa has been used by herbalists to treat inflammation, as in the case of arthritis. It can also aid in lowering cholesterol and sugar in the blood.
- Diuretic (due to flavonoids)
- Thins the blood (due to coumarin derivatives)
- Relaxes muscle spasms (due to flavonoids)
- Lower cholesterol (due to octacosanol)
- Supports healthy intestinal bacteria (due to saponins)
- Lowers blood sugar (due to alkaloids)
Because alfalfa is high in beta-carotene it can help strengthen the cells that line the stomach wall, which may help prevent ulcers.
Aloe is used both for topical applications and internal consumption. It is
considered a cell proliferant, which means it encourages the growth of healthy tissue. This explains its effectiveness for healing wounds and internal ulcers.
- Cathartic action (due to anthraquinones-a yellow irritating substance in the rind)
- Lowers bowel transit time
- Absorbs toxins in the bowel
- Regulates colonic bacteria
- Demulcent (soothing) to the digestive tract
- Cell proliferant action (due to mucopolysaccharides)
- Antibiotic action (due to polysaccharides). Aloe juice is primarily water (99.5%). The remaining 0.5% contains Mucopolysaccharides (carbohydrate molecules often combined with protein to form a protective gel-like substance) and Anthraquinone glucosides. The mucopolysaccharides in aloe are similar to hyaluronic acid; Anthraquinone glucosides are bitter and should not be given internally.
Aloe is often combined with slippery elm to treat ulcers. In addition to its content of viscous fiber, aloe is high in selenium and silicon. Both of these trace minerals are important in healing. Aloe can be fed short-term to help horses recover from a stressful event but it is safe enough to feed long-term for horses with sensitive digestive tracts. Interestingly, insulin-resistant horses who are very sensitive to most carbohydrates tolerate aloe very well. I have also had several horses with apparent stomach ulcers that showed no improvement on SUCCEED or Stomach Soother but did well on aloe and slippery elm.
This mucilaginous herb is almost identical in action to aloe. It is the inner bark of the tree that contains the healing properties, and high-quality slippery elm should be yellow or tan in color. A dark color indicates that the outer bark of the tree has been included, making the herb less effective. Slippery elm is high in several B vitamins such as niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine. Although slippery elm is safe for long-term consumption, there is only a finite supply of it in the world so it should be used only in the short-term. Alternatively, slippery elm can be alternated with more readily available mucilaginous herbs such as marshmallow for long-term use.
Medicinal herbs often have a very bad taste that would discourage their long-term consumption by animals in the wild. Some medicinal herbs such as foxglove, the herb from which digitalis is made, will cause vomiting if ingested in toxic amounts. This protective measure provided in nature is lost when active components are extracted from herbs and made into drugs.
This aromatic herb is often used for performance horses or injured horses who must be confined because it has a strong calming action on the nervous system. Although the name sounds similar, this herb has no relation to the drug Valium.
Definite Actions (due to alkaloids)
- Central nervous system depressant
- Analgesic properties
- Antibacterial against gram-positive bacteria
Medicinal herbs should be used short-term in most cases. Even medicinal herbs have some nutritional properties and many are safe long-term at low dosages. In my opinion, many herbs that are needed long-term are actually supplying nutrients which are lacking in the diet.
Madalyn Ward, DVM, owns Bear Creek Veterinary Clinic in Austin, Texas. She is certified in Veterinary Homeopathy and Equine Osteopathy. Memberships include American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Equine Practitioners, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association, Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the Academy of Veterinary Homeopathy. She has authored several books and publishes the monthly newsletter, “Holistic Horsekeeping.” Contact: Madalyn Ward DVM, 11608 FM 1826, Austin, TX 78737. 512-288-0428, www.holistichorsekeeping.com , www.yourhorsebook.com